Entering a Post-literacy World

New Zealand Author (winter 2020)

Unlike in some other places, the New Zealand Government decided that books were not essential goods and closed all bookshops during Alert Level 4. Even during Alert Level 3 you can only buy books online.

What a contrast from when import licensing was introduced in 1938, and again in 1958, when books were among a handful of goods on which there were no restrictions (censorship aside).

We read in those days. Downie Stewart, one of the conservative Ministers of Finance during the Great Depression, imported two copies of a book at a time, reading one and giving the other to Labour MPs John A Lee and Peter Fraser. Harry Holland, Leader of the Labour Opposition, gave away just about everything he had to the unemployed, but kept his library. Sometimes, I think we should require that personalities who are being profiled to tell us what they are reading. Some may answer like Jimmy Durante’s ‘one day I read a book, I can’t remember when, but one o’ these days I’m gonna do it again’.

We do not know to what extent the Government is involved in the collapse of the magazine market which depended largely on advertising which was failing. No doubt you missed in your lockdown the arrival of the autumn edition of the New Zealand Review of Books, thanks to Creative New Zealand’s shafting of its public funding at the end of 2019. Who needs serious book reviews?

It seems to me there was an overreaction to the loss of those magazines by the literary community. Yes, the New Zealand Listener once played a central role in the literary world, but recently it has been more likely to profile a personality than a book. The NZRB was founded 27 years ago because the Listener had announced it was then cutting back on its reviewing.

The fall in advertising for print is a serious matter, especially as it was an indirect source of income for writers. The Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media gave an insipid response when he was asked about the Australian initiative to require Google and Facebook to pay for the news that they filched from the primary news websites. Perhaps the Australians are going about it the wrong way, but they are not sitting in the middle of the road looking into oncoming lights.

The negligent attitude of CNZ towards books is exactly what the late Terry Sturm, last chair of the Literary Fund Committee, predicted. (Read about it in Elizabeth Caffin’s The Deepening Stream: A History of the New Zealand Literary Fund – by the way it’s a book; a wonderful account of how an informed and engaged government agency promoted New Zealand literature.) The literature portfolio should be transferred to the National Library.

Except the National Library  is getting a rough deal from its host, the Department of Internal Affairs. So is Archives New Zealand. A retired professor of accounting, Don Gilling, has shown that,  faced with financial repression, the DIA has diverted funds from those areas which provide services to the public to management operations.

If politicians could read, they might go to the Labour Party 2017 election manifesto which promised that the responsibilities of the National Library and Archives New Zealand would be transferred to better host institutions – perhaps to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage for the former and by making the Chief Archivist an Officer of the Parliament.

The government has made some timid attempts to implement its promise but has been stymied by the obduracy of bureaucrats concerned about losing power and the funding for managerial overheads (and, apparently, a compliant minister). Sturm called this combination ‘Villaintown’. So, the underfunded National Library is planning to dispose of up to 600,000 of its book collection; the similarly underfunded Archives New Zealand does not seem to be vigorously meeting all its statutory functions, while it has cut back public access to its files.

(And since underfunding is mentioned, is it not time to put authors’ remuneration from the Public Lending Right on a sound footing reflecting writer’s effort, by first raising the rate and then increasing it annually in line with increases in the minimum wage and the numbers of books?)

This is a long list of failures of government support for the text and its writers. Is it just this government, and its predecessors, struggle to read anything more complicated than what the lobbyists feed to them, or is there some kind of structural long-term change going on which undermining serious reading?

It is said that we are entering a post-literacy world in which most people read only the trivia, the public relations handouts, the commercial guff. If so, it will be a sadder world, a world of less imagination and lacking a public intellectual dialogue, a world in which one is ultimately judged as a consumer and worker, not as a person and citizen.

The argument is based on the rise of the web and web-based entertainment channels. It is true that new technologies change the way we read – ask Johannes Gutenberg. And it is true that the web and e-books have destroyed some categories of books such as encyclopaedias. Apparently it has changed the market for romance novels but, even so, only half of the 125 million copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, the most significant publication in this genre in recent years, were e-books. (In fact, 6.5 billion print books were sold over the past decade, compared to just 1.8 billion e-books.)

What is needed is a campaign; let’s call it ‘Reading New Zealand’, to get people into the habit of reading. There was such a campaign, called ‘Hooked on Books’, for adolescents based on the reviews of youth fiction in the New Zealand Review of Books. It was, of course, slashed by Creative New Zealand.

But it is not only adolescents who need to be encouraged to read. The campaign should be targeting all adults to get into the habit of serious reading. (Promoting adult literacy would be just one element.) Ideally it would be led by the National Library linking into the network of local libraries. But it would be hopeless if the National Library was still located in the Department of Internal Affairs.

Ultimately public responsibility for a post-literacy world in which reading remains a central activity, rests with the government. Perhaps it should start off, by reading what is not going on.